Parfleche made by a Northern Plains artist
Parfleche
Maker
Unknown artist from a Northern Plains tribe
Origin
Northern Plains, United States
Date
Unknown, but at the DAM since 1953
Medium
hide, pigment

Parfleche

What is it?

Created from animal hides and used to store or carry personal items, this Parfleche (pronounced: “par-flesh”) was made by a Northern Plains artist and has been with the Denver Art Museum since 1953.

What inspired it?

Plains and western Indians often moved throughout their territory and needed to safely move their belongings, such as moccasins, clothing or dried food, along with them. Though the original name for them is lost to us, French traders called these boxes parfleches, from the French words parer, meaning “parry” or “defend,” and flèche, meaning “arrow,” because the hide was tough enough to deflect an arrow and was also used to make shields.

How is it used?

Parfleche are designed to carry all types of objects. Sioux parfleches appear in three common shapes; flat/folded (like this object), box, and tube. Each shape meant for the objects it carries. For example, a box shape would be great for storing moccasins. The sturdy and compact design of the parfleche also makes it ideal for keeping the stored items safe during travel, especially when travelling on horseback. The creation and use of the parfleche developed along with the European’s introduction of horses to the Americas.

How is it made?

Process: Leather for the parfleche is prepared by soaking the fresh hide, (usually from cattle or buffalo), scraping away the fur, extra flesh, and bits of remaining fat, and creating a uniform thickness to the hide. The wet hide is then stretched and staked to the ground, or on a frame, and mechanically chopped to break the bonds in the hide. This will allow flexibility for folding and refolding when dry. The hide is then formed and folded into the desired final shape. For this particular form, the sides were overlapped and the ends were folded inward, to meet in the middle, and closed with the use of a leather tie. The decoration is made by "painting" the hide with a "cookie" made of earth based pigment, minerals and hide glue (made by extracting the adhesive found in animal bones and skin).

What to Look For

Detail of parfleche made by a Northern Plains artist
Color

While the meaning and symbolism of the colors vary from one tribe to another, they are normally indicative of that tribe’s surroundings, or who they may have traded with, in order to be able to use those materials.

Detail of parfleche made by a Northern Plains artist
Geometric shapes and patterns

Different shapes and patterns hold specific significance to different tribes. Each tribe uses certain symbols as a form of visual identity.

Detail of parfleche made by a Northern Plains artist
Materials

Animal hide, pigment.

Additional Reading